Glimpse the Internet of 2006:
Most users accessed the Web via Internet Explorer. Facebook had just opened its doors to those outside college campuses. MySpace, dubbed the “27.4-billion-pound gorilla” by TechCrunch, had more than 75 million users.
Oh, how the Internet has changed in the past five years.
As we become inundated by the latest, shiniest Internet tools, it’s important to take a look back and breathe deeply. The prognosticators often skew reality and miss their predictive marks by miles. The most important lesson to me? Technologies and innovations change faster than most of us can predict.
I began this exercise while preparing for this fall’s Web Communication class. I was flipping through the third edition of the dated but still excellent Web Design in a Nutshell, and reviewed the chapters on usage. Internet Explorer dominated the browser landscape. “Web 2.0″ was a mystical phrase. Mobile was something to consider, but most usage was expected to come through desktop monitors at 800 x 600 pixels.
It sparked a quick dive back into history.
I dug into browsers statistics from W3schools.com:
The statistics reinforce an adage from Harvard innovation theorist Clayton Christensen and his co-authors, Scott D. Anthony and Erik A. Roth (emphasis mine):
When the functionality and reliability of products overshoot customer needs, then convenience, customization, and low prices become what are not good enough.
In this case, by 2006, most users were satisfied with how their browsers functioned. Most could display Web pages and graphics adequately, and HTML/CSS standards were helping to mitigate the frustration of the browser wars. What people wanted was convenience through faster rendering engines and customizability through plug-ins and skins.
The lesson here? Speed, ease of use, and customization are critical for widespread acceptance of any new technology.
Web 2.0 and social media
Social media was coming to the fore in 2006, with MySpace garnering much attention and fanfare. People were still trying to figure out exactly what “Web 2.0″ meant, and media “gurus” were more focused on e-mail tips than Facebook marketing strategies.
Today, Facebook and Twitter garner most of the attention, but location-based technologies such as Foursquare and Groupon have started capturing users as well. Some have been buzzing about Google Plus, Tumblr, and Quora.
For me, the takeaway is don’t become too enamored of any one technology. The landscape changes quickly; you should understand how the systems operate. That way, you can adapt as the technology changes — because it always will.
The advent of mobile
In Web Design in a Nutshell, mobile was just emerging as a data platform. The iPhone hadn’t been introduced, and the BlackBerry (dubbed “Crackberry” by regular users) was the smartphone of choice. But such phones were typically too expensive for most users.
In 2006, most still used their cell phones as phones, and the big concern was the thought that some people might actually replace their landlines with the technology.
Today, 83% of adults have a cell phone, up from 73% in 2006. And of today’s cell phone users, 42% have a smartphone. With the introduction of the Apple iPad and Android tablet computers, mobile has become the primary medium of interest.
Mobile is a natural evolution of the self-referential nature of media usage: We want information when we want it, where we need it. We don’t want to wait.
Browser statistics point to the need for customization and speed. The rise of mobile shows us how important time-shifting and immediacy have become.
The big takeaway
My goal isn’t to inspire nostalgia for a simpler, less saturated era. What strikes me about the evolution of the Internet is the consumers and individual users are the ones dictating how technology will evolve.
Our goal should be figuring what jobs we need done (to lift more of Christensen’s language) for those users, and finding the best tools to accomplish those tasks.